Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire
Directed by Peter Raymont
Trying to comprehend genocide has been compared to staring at the sun; it's almost impossible to do directly. It's necessary to work around the edges, or from a partial perspective. That's the choice made in Peter Raymont's Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, in which the director attempts to put us into the mental state of the former United Nations commander, returning to Rwanda in 2004 after 10 years.
In 1994, under Dallaire's watch, Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 in a 100-day period. Restricted by United Nations' orders and deprived of reinforcements, he managed to protect 25,000 people with a force of 450 peacekeepers but he viewed his effort as an abject failure.
Originally commissioned for television (a shorter version aired on CBC on Jan. 31), Raymont's documentary is moving (it won an audience award at the recent Sundance Film Festival) but restrained. Dallaire is given a respectful amount of space to sort out his feelings. Using a few titles and Dallaire's voice-over recollections, the film chronicles his return visit, his meeting with old colleagues and dignitaries; it shows him talking to Rwandan press and visiting the sites of the atrocities.
Running parallel to the contemporary story are his recollections, illustrated by extensive, astutely edited archival footage, pungent with details: the blood on the shirt of a militia leader; the Stompin' Tom Connors' music he used to keep the besieged UN troops in good spirits.
Occasionally, Raymont underscores the obvious, with talking-head interviews (Stephen Lewis, Gerald Caplan) praising Dallaire, and suggestions of pathetic fallacy (clouds gather and lightning cracks to illustrate Dallaire's mental turmoil). The star of the film doesn't really need the help. He's an intelligent analyst and a forceful communicator, and he's softened by the down-to-earth presence of his wife, Elizabeth, a compelling, humane figure.
The most effective scenes show him struggling with the question of both personal and collective guilt. You can hear a groan of shock from Rwandan spectators in a sports stadium when he tells them the white superpowers decided that Africans were overpopulated anyhow. A heated scene takes place at a conference commemorating the genocide in which a grandstanding Belgian senator attacks Dallaire's failure to save 10 Belgian peacekeepers who were tortured and killed. The criticism is particularly galling, coming from the former Rwandan colonial power which withdrew its troops and allowed the genocide to progress.
Neither intended as history or strictly a character study, Shake Hands With the Devil is best understood as a testimony and a warning. It's an extension of the post-Rwanda mission that Dallaire has imposed on himself -- to make the world remember and learn. Shake Hands With the Devil runs at the Camera Bar and Media Lounge from Feb. 18 to March 3 and at the Bloor Cinema, Feb. 19 to Feb. 24.